Splits: Change You Can Believe In
Muscle gains at a standstill? Bored to death with your current training program?
Then you need a change and a challenge.
There are four very powerful changes you can make in the gym to solve these problems:
- Change your exercises. Our Exercises You've Never Tried and "Best of" series have you covered there.
- Change your set/rep scheme. Been doing three sets of ten since the 8th grade? Try 5 x 5, 2 x 15, or 8 x 3.
- Optimize your peri-workout nutrition.
- Adopt a fresh training split.
Let's take a closer look at number four.
Some people train their whole body – every major muscle group – in a single workout. Others divide their muscle groups up so much that every other Friday is "pubococcygeus day."
But talk to most experienced trainers and they'll tell you the same thing: there is no best split! Christian Thibaudeau sums it up best:
"There's no universal training split that's ideal for all purposes. The potential efficacy of a mode of training organization will be highly dependant on goals, schedule, experience, and individual physical make-up."
And we'll add this: Sometimes the "best" split for you is simply the one that you haven't used in a while. Change – at least the kind that stimulates new adaptations – is a good thing.
So let's review some basic splits and talk about the advantages of each. Whether you're a snot-nosed newbie who needs a plan to get started or a grungy veteran who needs a new challenge, think of this as your quick and dirty guide to training splits.
This first split, well, isn't. Basically you just train the whole body in one workout session. Typically, you take a day off, then do it again. So it looks like this:
- Monday: Full body training
- Tuesday: Off
- Wednesday: Full body training
- Thursday: Off
- Friday: Full body training
You can then keep the sequence going, taking Saturday off then starting over on Sunday, or you can take the weekend off.
Now, with full body training you obviously can't do five different exercises just for chest. You'd be in there for three hours by the time you worked your way down to calves... or you'd die of exhaustion. And that causes atrophy, don't ya know? So you'd only hit the chest with one big compound exercise (usually) then move on to the other muscle groups.
But the cool thing is, you'll be hitting the chest again very soon. So, volume per workout is low for chest, but frequency is high i.e. you'll be training chest three times per week instead of once every three to five days as some split routines would have you do. Plus, you can always do different chest exercises each time.
Good for: Athletes, beginners, those with only a few days per week to train, and those seeking mainly fat loss. For example, the Velocity Diet training program, custom-designed by Chad Waterbury for those on extreme cutting diets, has worked especially well, with dieters reporting muscle mass retention and even gains.
A good, time-proven plan, but most hypertrophy-focused lifters eventually move on to one of the following true splits.
Even fans of full body training like Alwyn Cosgrove like the upper/lower split. Cosgrove notes: "Maybe 90-95% of the population, 90-95% of the time, will respond best to either total body or an upper and lower split."
A standard upper/lower split would look something like this:
- Day 1: Upper body training only (chest, back, shoulders, arms)
- Day 2: Lower body training only (legs and sometimes abs)
- Day 3: Off or cardio
- Day 4: Upper body again
- Day 5: Lower body again
One nice thing about the upper/lower split verses a full-body split is that legs get a day all to their own. Lower body training is taxing and – if you're doing it right – pretty damn brutal. Hit your legs hard enough and you won't have much energy left for upper body work. The upper/lower split solves that problem for many.
You can split your body two ways without using the ol' upper/lower routine. Here's an alternative:
- Day 1: Chest, shoulders, and triceps
- Day 2: Legs, back, and biceps
- Day 3: Off
- Day 4: Repeat
In this split you'll pair the muscles on the opposite or opposing side of the body. So, train chest with back for example. This allows you to use antagonist training, where you superset between chest and back instead of doing, say, three straight sets for chest, then three straight sets for back. Waterbury explains the benefits:
"Antagonist training allows you to recover more quickly between sets due to the arrangement of the nervous system. When you maximally activate a muscle group, the nervous system inhibits the opposing muscle group for greater movement efficiency. This phenomenon decreases the time necessary for recovery and it helps restore strength."
This "loop" within the nervous system structure can be used to your advantage. If you alternate exercises for opposing muscle groups, the nervous system will inhibit the muscles that aren't being worked and you'll recover your strength more quickly.
That said, this is a fine split even if you don't use antagonistic training. Here's the typical breakdown:
- Day 1: Chest/Back
- Day 2: Quads/Hams
- Day 3: Biceps/Triceps
- Day 4: Off
- Day 5: Repeat
Calves can be tossed in on leg day and abs can be trained on the less-taxing biceps/triceps day. Or you can do both on your "off" day... which kinda means it's not an off day, you gym junkie you.
Shoulders are tricky with this set-up though. Some prefer to train them on chest/back day, others prefer biceps/triceps day. And a few believe that not much direct shoulder training is even needed since the delts are hit pretty well with the other muscle groups. Folks from this camp often do a few sets of lateral raises and call it a day for shoulder training.
Primary movers and secondary movers are old-school terms that are useful when describing these splits. To illustrate, when training chest, your pecs are the primary movers. They should be doing most of the work. The triceps help out though, so they're the secondary movers.
With back training, the various muscles of the back do most of the work as primary movers; the biceps would be the secondary movers.
Simple enough, but why is it important when considering your split? Well, as noted in the examples, the arms are secondary movers for chest and back. That gives you two options:
- Day 1: Back/triceps
- Day 2: Chest/biceps
- Day 3: Legs, shoulders, abs
- Day 4: Off or repeat
The idea here is to keep your biceps and triceps "fresh." For example, on Day #1 the triceps will be fresh since the back needs the biceps, not the triceps, as secondary movers. You'll find that you'll feel very strong when training arms using this split and can use more weight for arm work than if you paired chest with triceps and back with biceps.
- Day 1: Back/biceps
- Day 2: Chest/triceps
- Day 3: Legs, shoulders, abs
- Day 4: Off or repeat
With this option, you purposefully pair the secondary movers with their primary movers. After all, if you're already fatiguing the arms from training chest and back, you may as well "finish them off" with direct work.
As with most of these splits, we wouldn't say one is better than the other, just different. So choose one that best fits your needs or pick the option you've used the least if you need a rut-breaker.
Listen to the way many successful bodybuilders describe their training:
"Man, I annihilated legs today!"
"I'm going to destroy my bi's!"
"I couldn't brush my teeth for three days. It was a great workout!"
This isn't that surprising. After all, hypertrophy is all about damaging muscles so they can then rebuild themselves a little bigger. This next split takes that idea to the extreme, splitting the body into seven training sessions. Why? So you can obliterate each muscle group and "shock it into growth," as the Golden Age bodybuilders used to say.
Here's one way to do it:
- Monday: Quads
- Tuesday: Back
- Wednesday: Chest
- Thursday: Hamstrings (posterior chain)
- Friday: Biceps and calves
- Saturday: Triceps and abs
- Sunday: Shoulders
Now, on each day your plan is to absolutely raze that target muscle group. You're going to perform every exercise you know for that muscle group, hit it "from all angles," and use intensity techniques like drop sets and forced negatives.
There are no rules. Your mission is to obliterate, plain and simple, then give that muscle group a whole week to recoup before you train it again.
Crazy? Why yes. Yes, it is. So don't do it often. Instead use it as an occasional waker-upper – the nuclear option for breaking a plateau.
Do you think leg training sucks? Do you just hate the nausea and lactic acid burn that an effective leg workout always seems to cause?
Well, then chances are if Coach Charles Poliquin saw you he'd get to make his infamous joke: "Hey, are those your legs or are you riding a stork?" Because if you hate leg day then your lower half probably reflects it.
Don't sweat it. Here's a Poliquin split that not only makes leg training somewhat more bearable, it also makes them bigger since you can focus on quads and hams in separate sessions:
- Day 1: Hamstrings and calves
- Day 2: Back and shoulders
- Day 3: Off
- Day 4: Quads and calves
- Day 5: Chest and arms
- Day 6: Off
Not only is leg training divided, but calves get trashed twice a week. And admit it: you need it.
Note: This idea has also been described as hip-dominant day and quad-dominant day. Pretty much the same thing: a day for deadlifts and the like, and a day for squats and their evil cousins.
Some coaches and trainers like to think in movements, not muscles. When placed into a weekly program, this comes in somewhere between a full body and a standard split program, making it a favorite transition for many T NATION readers.
A split could look like this:
- Day 1: Push
- Day 2: Pull
- Day 3: Off
- Day 4: Push
- Day 5: Pull
The "push" body parts are chest, quads, shoulders, triceps, and calves.
Conversely, the "pull" body parts are the back, hamstrings, biceps, and forearms.
Sample "push" exercises include the bench press, squat, overhead press, dip, lateral raise, and triceps extension.
Sample "pull" exercises include the deadlift, pull-up, curl, shrug, and row.
A very popular bodybuilding split and probably one of the first most of us ever used. It's an effective plan and it really keeps the primary/secondary mover issues in mind.
Only problem? It contributes to Monday being International Chest Day.
Oh well, start your week with back if you can't find an open bench!
- Day 1: Chest
- Day 2: Back
- Day 3: Legs
- Day 4: Arms and shoulders
- Day 5: Off
We can't cover every possible training split in one article, but hopefully we've given you a place to start or some new ideas.
Have a favorite we didn't mention? Hit "discuss" and lay it on us!